I am reading and grading response papers from the graduate class this evening (and I post this having realized this week that at least a couple of students on campus know this blog and know it's mine), and I find myself a little baffled at the concept of the response paper itself. And I'm the one who assigned it...
It's funny: I've never entirely gotten what a response paper is supposed to be. As an undergrad, I veered wildly from the my-personal-feelings-on-this-book sort of rumination to the very-short-but-otherwise-formal academic argument. And I got advised away from both styles at different points.
In grad school, the ones I recall most regularly actually had specific prompts, so they weren't quite so unfocused, but what I remember most about them was that I felt willing to play a bit. A response paper in a textual studies and bibliography class on the paratext of an assigned text found me writing the entire essay in paratext: a title with footnotes, but no body. Clever, I think still, but kind of pointless beyond the playfulness. I also wrote a song (to the tune of "Cruella DeVil") about Jerome McGann in that class, riffing on an episode that McGann describes in one of his classes in The Textual Condition (I think).
In my 300-level class last fall, I assigned them, but pushed in clear and explicit terms, the mini-formal-argument model, which I think ended up putting way too much pressure on them. But it was the only way I knew how to grade writing, was with some sorts of formal infrastructure to build my comments around. But this didn't do the job, since while the best students adjusted, some who struggled ended up going toward formal coherence over actual thought-processing.
In the grad course, I've tried to encourage the rumination approach. As I've been reading, responding to, and (unfortunately) grading them, I've found that the papers I respond to most strongly are those that are hammering out an idea, in conversation with the actual readings we've been doing, but mostly something that actually seems to be dealing with a critical problem. For some essays, that problem has been simply trying to make sense of a difficult theoretical position in practical terms; others have taken their own reading impulses and examined them closely; still others have taken a more formal route, but done so in decidedly exigent terms.
I've also found, though, that I like to read playful response papers--bits of personal narrative seem to have a positive rhetorical effect on this reader, where they wouldn't in a final paper. I like the moments when students actually narrate their train of thought (often blaming me for "mucking up my thought process" to quote from one essay). This may be a readerly quirk, a bit of seeing myself in my students.
The best papers? They take a real problem and tackle it head on. They engage the critical conversation in a more-than-perfuctory way. And they play. They don't always reach a conclusion, they don't always break new ground, and they don't necessarily even have a thesis.
But in figuring this out, I'm still not entirely sure how to teach that up front. So, dear reader: how do you assign, teach, and respond to response papers? What do you look for? What do say to them?